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Times Are Changing for Religious Right « The Washington Independent

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has grown so accustomed to the steady drumbeat of death notices for the religious right that he can joke about it.

“I feel amazingly well,” Perkins said Wednesday. “I don’t feel like I am cracking up or dying – and the movement isn’t either.”

Instead, Perkins argues, recent “growing pains” are proof that the religious right is broadening its agenda and its reach. At the same time, evangelicals are exerting their independence from the Republican Party and, he hopes, increasing their influence on politics and policy.

Perkins makes his argument in a new book, “Personal Faith, Public Policy,” he wrote with Bishop Harry Jackson, chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, which brings together black churches and community leaders. The project is part history, part platform, and, it appears, a bid to take the helm of a movement from its original generation of leaders, men like the late Jerry Falwell.

Perkins and Jackson got to know each other through their work in opposition to gay marriage. Today, amid a shifting landscape, they see an opportunity to combine what Jackson calls “righteousness issues”, like abortion and marriage, that have long pre-occupied white-led evangelical groups, with “justice issues” like poverty, traditionally the focus of African-American churches. The result is a wide-ranging and ambitious agenda that calls for action on immigration, poverty, global warming, health-care reform and more, while also fighting abortion and strengthening traditional families.

“Our movement is not dead,” Jackson explained. “Our movement is maturing.”

It is a provocative – and perhaps hopeful — spin on the current state of the religious right, whose ranks have recently been at odds with its leadership, frustrated by a focus on those righteousness issues and seeming disregard for other matters.

The surprisingly strong showing of Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, in the Republican presidential primary – despite the lukewarm reception he received from the leaders of movement — was just one sign of that tension. Since dropping out of the race, Huckabee has hinted at a role for himself at the leader of a new generation of Christian conservatives.

Whatever form its leadership takes, there is broad agreement that the evangelical movement is changing.

As Jim Wallis, a left-leaning Christian activist who is among those to declare the end of the religious right – put it during a Washington discussion of the new book, “What has felt like a monologue is over and a dialogue has begun.”

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, pointed to a generational and ethnic shift he called “the browning of the evangelical movement,” which is bringing new priorities. For example, these evangelicals want to fight terrorism and AIDS, he said. “We have this crazy idea,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not either/or. It’s both.”

And, when it comes to politics, they also want a bit of both. “We definitely don’t want to be owned by one political party,” Rodriguez said.

Any new movement based on these many constituencies with sometimes divergent goals is sure to confront tensions of its own. Rodriguez complained about the “xenophobia” and “nativism” that had characterized recent immigration debates, and called on other Christian right leaders to reject those tactics.

At the heart of the argument that Perkins and Jackson are making is an acknowledgement that the religious right has been too cozy with the Republican Party in the past, too willing to overlook its scandals and missteps in exchange for access and promises of action.

“All too often, evangelicals have tolerated major breaches of character or competence within the Republican Party or certain ‘pet’ conservative groups,” they write. “But if we are ever to speak as the moral conscience of the nation, we must consistently stand for a clear set of values and principles, no matter if that leads to a temporary loss of political power.”

This year, they said, evangelical voters are in play.

“The Republican affiliation of evangelicals is changing,” Perkins said. “They have not left the party, but they party has left them, they feel.”

Perkins said religious right voters would support Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in his presidential bid if he reaches out to social conservatives on their issues. But, if he does not, Perkins warned, “He will not have the energetic, enthusiastic support he will need to win.”

Yet as Perkins and Jackson push the idea that the religious right could become its own voting bloc, with “the ability to seed both parties and operate as a political ‘free agent’,” doesn’t that very term, religious right, underscore a link with the Republican Party?

Perkins and Jackson said they had talked about other monikers, and considered conservative Christian, Bible-believing Christian and evangelical. But they kept coming back to religious right. Though Perkins said, “Maybe a change in terminology is appropriate.”

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